GOP Inches Closer to Senate 'Nuclear Option'

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Madeleine Brand speaks with David Welna about Wednesday's Senate debate over the use of the so-called "nuclear option" — a rule change that could end the minority right to filibuster. Republicans want to avoid filibusters on four key judicial nominations, but Democrats vow to slow Senate business to a crawl if Republicans trigger the "nuclear option."

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, Los Angeles has a new mayor, the first Latino to hold that office in more than 130 years.

But, first, to Washington politics. The Senate today began a potentially historic debate on the use of filibusters to defeat the president's judicial nominees. The Senate's minority Democrats used the delaying technique to hold up 10 of President Bush's appointees during his first term. He has renominated seven of those this year. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says this use of the filibuster is something new.

Senator BILL FRIST (Senate Majority Leader): Should we allow a minority of senators to deny votes on judicial nominees that have the support of a majority of this body, or should we restore the 214-year practice of voting up or down on all judicial nominees that come to this floor? I have to believe the Senate will make the right choice.

BRAND: But Democratic Leader Harry Reid says the Senate has been resisting presidential nominees by whatever means necessary for a long time.

Senator HARRY REID (Senate Minority Leader): Right now the only check on President Bush is the Democrats' ability to voice their concern in this body, the Senate. If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, then we've no check on their power. The radical right wing will be free to pursue any agenda they want and not just on judges. Their power will be unchecked on Supreme Court nominees, the president's nominees in general and legislation like Social Security privatization.

BRAND: After several days of this type of discussion, the Republicans are expected to call for a final vote early next week to cut off debate on one of President Bush's nominees. Watching all this back and forth on Capitol Hill is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna, and he joins us now from the Capitol.

Well, David, who's right? Is this kind of filibuster unprecedented, or has the minority party been able to carry on with filibusters?

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Well, Madeleine, there have been other filibusters of judicial nominees on the Senate floor. I think what's new is the fact that in the past couple years, Democrats resorted to filibusters to block judicial nominees for circuit court posts 10 times--or in the cases of 10 nominees. And Republicans are saying there has never been a period in the history of the Senate during which so many filibusters have been used. But the fact is that many, many nominees have never even made it to the Senate floor during the Clinton administration. So, you know, the accusations go back and forth about who's more at fault in this. And I think there's a lot of baggage from previous administration that is driving the debate right now.

BRAND: Right. And Republican Senator Arlen Specter said this was, quote, "payback time" for the way judicial nominees were handled in the Clinton years. So what does that indicate in terms of where he would head on this issue?

WELNA: Well, Specter's not saying whether he would vote for the so-called nuclear option to end judicial filibusters or not. He says that he thinks by not saying how he'd go, he is pushing the Senate towards some kind of a compromise. He's saying, `Let's just bring out the nominees who have the backing of a majority in the Senate and deal with them first and then work towards some kind of a compromise down the line rather than starting out with warfare right away.'

BRAND: And what's going on in the back room? Are there deals being hashed out between Frist and Reid?

WELNA: Frist and Reid have really broken off talks with each other, but there are some centrist Republicans and Democrats and some Republicans who call themselves traditionalists who don't want to lose this long-standing tradition of judicial filibusters. After all, they figure they might be in the minority someday, too, and want to use them. But it's not clear whether they have any deal yet, and those negotiations continue.

BRAND: And what about the other senators there this morning? What's the mood like?

WELNA: Well, I think that both sides are really fired up for this debate. At the same time I think there's extreme wariness about what the outcome might be because Democrats are threatening to really slow things down to a crawl in the Senate if the nuclear option prevails. And there's a lot of concern that a lot of the work the Senate planned to do this year might not get done.

BRAND: NPR congressional correspondent David Welna, thank you very much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Madeleine.

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